Yorkshire North Riding Collection

Performance Traditions

Professional Touring Companies

Much of the territory of the North Riding lies on the North Yorkshire moors, inhospitable at best, impassable at worst. The North Riding was home to a substantial number of gentry; their estates, however, tended to lie off the moorland: in the Vale of York to the west, the Tees valley to the north, along the coast to the east, and the Derwent valley to the south. When London-based playing companies did venture north, they avoided the moors and found employment in the surrounding estates. The Fairfax family renovated their Great Hall at Gilling Castle in the late 1570s and their household accounts record visits to the hall both before and after its renovation.. On 12 September 1571 the guests at dinner included the earl of Worcester's players. William Somerset (c 1527–1588/9), eighth earl of Worcester, was based at Raglan, Monmouthshire, and his well-known playing company toured extensively, including appearances at York in March 1584/5. In 1581 the Fairfaxes hosted the players of Henry Berkeley (1534–1613), seventh Baron Berkeley.. Berkeley's seat was in Gloucestershire, and since it does not appear that his playing company had regular access to a London theatre, they spent much of their time on the road. Gilling Castle lies to the west of the moors and access from York would not have been difficult.

Travel to Richard Cholmeley's home at Brandsby would also have been straightforward, as it lies not far from Gilling, on the southwest side of the moorland. At Christmas 1622 Cholmeley hosted two companies with royal patents, the king's players and 'an other company of ye kinges servantes.' One of these two companies must have been the king's men, who as the lord chamberlain's men had received their royal patent on James I's accession in 1603. The other company of 'ye kinges servantes' is less clear. The word 'players' is notoriously ambiguous and this second company might be one of the groups of royal tumblers or other performers who visited York in the 1620s and 1630s. If these were royal musicians, they might have been providing music for the king's men's play.

A particularly extensive set of records belongs to the household of Thomas Bellasis (1577–1653), first Viscount Fauconberg of Newburgh Priory, close to both Gilling and Brandsby and thus easily accessible from York. Bellasis was a frequent patron of players and during the period from 1610 to 1616 he attended fourteen performances by companies of players, both at Newburgh and other nearby estates. These include performances in 1611 by Lord Mounteagle's men and two visits by the queen's men in August 1615 and July 1616. It is likely that Bellasis saw Queen Anne's men on those occasions.


Local Touring Companies

The North Riding was also home to at least two companies of local players and hosted several others. Principal among these was the company of recusant players led by Robert and Christopher Simpson from their home at Egton, near Whitby and a short distance from Grosmont Priory. The relationship between Robert and Christopher is unclear, but the lists of company members that are given with their frequent appearances before the quarter sessions magistrates indicate that most of the members were related to each other. Although it is never made explicit in the quarter sessions records, several Star Chamber cases involving the Simpsons make it clear that they were Catholic and did in some cases perform anti-Protestant entertainments for residents of the area, which had become one of the country's principal hotbeds of Catholicism. The Simpsons first appear both as Catholics and as interlude players in William Cecil's recusancy rolls of 1595. In addition to their theatrical performances, most of the Simpsons were also shoemakers, though it is not clear to what extent this was a nominal profession.

We are particularly well informed about the Simpson company because Sir John Yorke of Gouthwaite Hall, Nidderdale, was brought before Star Chamber in 1611 on charges of permitting an anti-Protestant play to be performed at Gouthwaite during the Christmas celebrations of 1609/10. A large number of surviving depositions by participants and witnesses gives an unusually clear view of a company of local sectarian players. Records pertaining directly to the Simpsons' life in Egton are printed here. Those relating specifically to the performances at Gouthwaite Hall will appear with the West Riding collection, as the border has shifted and Nidderdale, formerly in the West Riding, moved to the North Riding in the 1974 county reorganization.

Map 1. Simpson company tour, Christmas to Candlemas 1609–10. Cartography: Byron Moldofsky.

The site of the performance no longer exists in its original state, since the River Nidd was dammed between 1893 and 1900 to form Gouthwaite Reservoir and the hall was rebuilt and re-sited as two farmhouses. An 1870 engraving of the hall made for the title page of William Smith's Old Yorkshire shows at the right-hand side a substantial great hall, two storeys in height, though whether the hall itself occupies one or two storeys is not clear.

Gouthwaite Hall. Anonymous engraving. William Smith, Old Yorkshire, ns (London, 1891), title-page.

Members of the Simpson company identified their repertoire as including 'Perocles, prince of Tire, ... And [...] King Lere.' These are generally assumed to be Shakespeare's, though the latter could be the anonymous King Leir (printed in 1605). The play that raised such a fuss at Gouthwaite Hall was a 'St Christopher' play which has unfortunately not survived, in which the Simpsons inserted a debate between a Protestant clergyman and a Catholic priest. The debate is settled in favour of the priest and a demon appears to carry the clergyman off to Hell. Star Chamber depositions also indicate that the company owned a copy of The Three Shirleys, usually identified as John Day, William Rowley, and George Wilkins' The Travels of the Three English Brothers (London, 1607).

The Simpsons did not perform under gentry patronage, although Sir Thomas Posthumous Hoby claimed in a 1609 Star Chamber deposition that they had received support from Sir Richard Cholmley of Whitby. This claim, however, is made in a deposition as part of a suit brought by Hoby against Cholmley. The company's various appearances before the quarter sessions permits building up a picture of their touring practices, with nine stops on their January tour of 1615.

Map 2. Simpson company tour, 1 January–13 January 1614/15. Cartography: Byron Moldofsky.

The Simpsons were not the only locally based company. A small company of players based in Hutton Buscel, just west of Scarborough, was brought before the quarter sessions in April 1616. Their winter 1615/16 tour brought the company to thirty-two gentry houses, with locations and dates given in the court records.

Map 3. Hutton Buscel company tour, 29 December 1615–18 February 1615/16. Cartography: Byron Moldofsky.

They appear to have been at least in part a boys' company. The quarter sessions records give the ages of those who appeared before the court; two of the Hutton Buscel company (the leaders, Richard Hudson and Edward Lister) were over forty, three were in their teens, and two were 'over seven.' The Hutton Buscel players do not seem to have played to a sectarian audience and there is no evidence that their membership was recusant. The quarter sessions records indicate that the two companies from Egton and Hutton Buscel collaborated on a performance at Stokesley in 1612.

In addition to these two local companies, the professional company under the patronage of Philip Wharton (1555–1625), third Baron Wharton, was likely based at his estate at Healaugh Park Priory, in the West Riding. Wharton's men visited Sir Richard Cholmeley twice, in January of 1615/16 and two years later in 1617/18. On their second appearance they played Gervase Markham and Lewis Machin's play, The Dumb Knight (London, 1608). According to the title page, the play was initially in the repertoire of the children of the King's Revels, though there is no evidence that Wharton's men was a children's company. When Wharton's men played at Londesborough, East Riding, in 1600, the company numbered eight and their reward of six shillings for 'The Dumb Knight,' compared with the 13s 8d they received at Londesborough, would suggest a company of no more than four players.

Inhabiting the border between professional and non-professional players were the participants in the performance of a jig in 1601. The jig was both bawdy and libellous and its progress through the courts left an abundance of documentation. This documentation is critically important because the jig is by its very nature ephemeral. It appears to derive from the kind of stand-up comedy monologues performed by the great Elizabethan stage clowns like Richard Tarleton, Richard Armin, and William Kemp. These monologues expanded first into dialogues, then into short plays with three or four characters, featuring traditional characters such as elderly husbands and young wives, clever servants, lecherous gentlemen, and foolish bumpkins. The jigs were entirely sung to well-known tunes, principally using the music of the broadside ballad, and a small number of them survive. The jigs included a substantial component of dance as well as song.

From the surviving jig texts, contemporary descriptions, and related material like the jest books, it seems clear that the purpose of a jig, whether following a comedy or a tragedy, was to lighten the mood with a brash and often bawdy comic turn. The jigs were immensely popular, though not everyone was in favour of the practice. The playwright Thomas Dekker wrote in 1613, ‘I have often seene, after the finishing of some worthy Tragedy, or Catastrophe in the open Theaters, that the Sceane after the Epilogue hath been more blacke (about a nasty bawdy Iigge) then the most horrid Sceane in the Play was....’

The law agreed with Dekker and the Westminster general session of the peace on 1 October 1612 promulgated 'An Order for suppressinge of Jigges att the ende of Playes.' Although this order links the jigs directly with the London professional theatre, there is also evidence, as in the North Riding, of jigs in a provincial and local context. A number of the surviving provincial jigs had a specific purpose: the satirizing and humiliation of local (and identifiable) persons. Not surprisingly, our major source for this mode of jig lies in the legal documents associated with it. In 1602 one Michael Steill (Protestant) of Skelton-on-Ure brought action for libel against Edward Meynell (Catholic) of Hawnby. Included in the complaint were Meynell's servants, William Bowes and Francis Mitchell. The Star Chamber depositions give the background. Bowes, Meynell's servant, deposed that Steill had 'turned his wife from him to shift for herself, and did keep house together with his servant Frances and lived with her very suspiciously and in evil vice and fame.' The jig achieved some popularity. Bowes said he heard it sung by one Roger Bowlande and others in the village of Grimscar and other places; Mitchell admitted to singing it in the houses of Meynell and Bowes and having made a copy of it for Sir William Bellasis, JP. While these performances by Meynell's household staff were clearly non-professional, Meynell stated that the jig was also sung by stage players in the village of Osmotherley at Christmas 1601.


Civic Music

Both Richmond and Scarborough supported a company of waits. Our primary local source for the Richmond waits lies in the account book of the guild of Mercers, Grocers, and Haberdashers, who hired the city waits to provide music for their annual warden's feast. The payments to the waits vary from 6d to 2s 2d, suggesting a significant variation in the number of musicians in the group. The Richmond musicians were also hired on several occasions by Christopher Danby of Snape. They travelled frequently, though their touring remained predominately local, with appearances for the Clifford earls of Cumberland at Naworth Castle, Cumberland, and Londesborough, East Riding, and for the Scrope family at Bolton Castle, North Riding.

Scarborough's waits are known principally from the regular payments provided by the city for their livery cloaks. These were expensive: in 1638/9, they cost the city £1 6s 8d and in 1640, £1 16s. In addition, the city council required each wait to provide a surety for the return of his badge of office each Michaelmas to the bailiffs. Carlisle's civic accounts also record the visits of waits from Middleham, Askrigg, Bedale, and Thirsk.

Private Music

Middleham's waits, paid on five occasions for playing in Carlisle, also appear in a single payment in Christopher Danby of Masham's household accounts. Given Middleham's small size, especially in contrast to the large establishment of the Neville family castle, it seems likely that these would have been household musicians, not civic waits. The Middleham connection is clear: Danby's great-grandfather, also named Christopher, had married Elizabeth Neville, daughter of Richard Neville, second Baron Latimer. Itinerant professional musicians are reflected in the frequent payments in household accounts to 'music' or 'musicians'; pipers are often hired to celebrate festive seasons like Christmas. Some professional musicians travelled extensively; on 12 September 1615 Richard Cholmeley of Brandsby rewarded the four musicians of Lord Willoughby for playing.

Privately owned instruments, especially virginals, viols, and lutes, appear occasionally in probate inventories, and the ownership of stringed instruments is implied by payments for lute and viol strings. Margaret Hoby owned an orpharion, a flat backed wire-strung instrument of the guitar family, which she played 'to refresh my selfe beinge dull.'

The existence of excellent musical education in the North Riding is implied in the life of Christopher Simpson, son of one of the leaders of the Egton playing company. Christopher's date of birth is uncertain but he was likely born in Egton between 1602 and 1606. He became the most celebrated viola da gamba player in the country and spent much of his life as household musician to Sir Robert Bolles (1619–1663), second Baronet Bolles, of Scampton, Lincolnshire who served as MP for Lincoln in 1661–63. Christopher is best known as the author of The Division-Violist: Or An Introduction to the Playing upon a Ground (London, 1659). There is no evidence that Christopher received his musical education anywhere other than at Egton, where there was a schoolmaster, Edward Nickson. Christopher Simpson died in 1669.

Popular Customs

Records detailing popular customs are most commonly found in the records of individual parishes, especially in the accounts of churchwardens, since many of them form a significant source of parish fundraising. In the North Riding, however, only a very small number of such records survive, due in part at least to the wide spread of large rural parishes in the county. Balancing this loss, a number of popular customs are reflected in records other than parish documents. Ecclesiastical visitation records occasionally provide evidence of popular customs: on 9 September 1615 George Sherwin and George Pearson were cited for playing Robin Hood and the sheriff respectively during a rushbearing at Brandsby. Household accounts also reflect householders' interest in local customs, especially in situations involving donations made to the participants: in February of 1610/11 the Bellasis family steward gave 6d to ‘boyes that were Mummers.' In August of 1616 a reward was given to ‘the foole at thirkleby,' though the record does not indicate the nature of the fool or whether he was seen as entertainment. In 1483 Richard III included a reward of one shilling to ‘Martyn the fole’ in a series of payments made at Middleham. One Simon Condall was cited by the archidiaconal visitation in 1590 in that he ‘plaid the foole ... in a fowles Coat.’

In his study of the Simpson company, Boddy suggested that the initial impetus for the players might have derived from the custom of 'plough stotts,' as described in 1817 by George Young:

On plough monday, the first monday after twelfth day ... there is a procession of rustic youths dragging a plough, who, as they officiate for oxen are called plough-stots. They are dressed with their shirts on the outside of their jackets ... with knots or roses of ribbons fastened on their shirts and on their hats. Besides the plough draggers, there is a band of six, in the same dress, furnished with swords, who perform the sword-dance, while one or more musicians play on the fiddle or flute.... During the dance, two or three of the company, called Toms or clowns, dressed up as harlequins in the most fantastic modes, having their faces painted or masked, are making antic gestures and movements to amuse the spectators; while another set called Madgies, or Madgy-Pegs, clumsily dressed in women's clothes, and also masked or painted, go about from door to door, rattling old canisters in which they receive money.... They parade from town to town for two or three days, and the money collected is then expended in a feast or dance, to which the girls who furnished the ribbons and other decorations are invited. Sometimes the sword-dance is performed differently; a kind of farce, in which songs are introduced, being acted along with the dance. The principal characters in the farce are the king, the miller, the clown, and the doctor. Egton Bridge has long been the chief rendezvous for sword-dancers in this vicinity.'

Unfortunately Young is describing the popular customs of 1816 and there is no evidence for the plough-stot ceremony and sword-dance in the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries.

One custom for which there is contemporary evidence is the burial song known as the Lyke-Wake dirge, which was described in antiquarian notes by both William Camden and John Aubrey. Aubrey dated his information to 1616. Records also show evidence of popular customs which were widespread throughout the country. Richard III's donations made at Middleham in 1483 included contributions to king games at Middleham and West Witton.